Thursday, November 26, 2015
Highlands-Pulaski County Preview
The defending Class 4A state champion Highlands Bluebirds football team (8-5 overall) may need every ounce of it and the hostile environment of David Cecil Memorial Stadium to take down the defending 5A champion Pulaski County Maroons (12-1) in the 5A state semifinals. Game time is 3 p.m. Friday in Fort Thomas where the Bluebirds have won 30 consecutive home playoff games.
"When we played these semifinal games on the road, it was always a neat environment," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "It was a big deal. There's been some years where weather and other things have played into it. It looks like we're going to have decent temperatures. If I'm a high school football fan, I would be pumped to come up here at 3 p.m. in the afternoon and watch a semifinal football game. We're hoping all of that together will bring a big Highlands crowd."
Pulaski County reminds the Highlands staff of the Lexington Catholic teams that Highlands beat four straight years in the Class 4A semifinals. The Knights also like to spread the field and use their athletes in a number of ways.
The teams met one other time in school history. It came in 2009 when the Bluebirds beat the Maroons, 52-12 in the 5A semifinals on its way to the third of a state-record six consecutive state championships. Pulaski County won its first-ever district and region championships that year.
The Maroons want to show how far they've come along in recent years. Pulaski County has won three straight region championships and four in the last seven seasons. When Head Coach John Hines took over the program in 1999, Pulaski County had never won a playoff game.
"I think when you do something for the first time, it's real hard to be successful in that sense," Hines said. "We just weren't on (the Bluebirds') level. We came home as a staff and as players. If we were going to beat those teams or win state championships, we had to get up to that level. We hope that's been a good building experience for us. We'll go up there, play and see if we're on their level or not."
Pulaski County senior outside linebacker Jesse Whitaker said he and some current teammates went up to see the game at Highlands in 2009 as sixth-graders. They are aware of the tight visiting sidelines among other things as a result.
"Then we thought, 'Wow. This is a crazy place to play. It would be awesome to play here," Whitaker said. "Now that we've been in the big games we've been in, we're going to go in confident and try not to worry about the crowd too much and the atmosphere being on top of us."
Hines has been on the Pulaski County staff since 1995. The Somerset graduate played for long-time Briar Jumper Head Coach John Cain. Cain brought Hines back from Barren County as an assistant when Cain became Maroon Head Coach that year.
Cain served as Pulaski County Head Coach for four years before Hines took over. Hines played on Somerset's 1978 team that lost 22-6 to Mayfield in the Class 2A state championship game.
Both teams run balanced Spread attacks offensively and aggressive 3-4 defenses. Pulaski County comes into the game as the top-scoring offense in 5A with 622 points and has allowed just 208. On the other hand, Highlands has scored 402 and allowed 335 mostly during its 1-5 start against Top 10 teams in Kentucky's largest Class 6A.
Senior quarterback Riley Hall and junior wide receiver Jake Johnson lead a potent Maroon offense that averages 162.3 yards per game rushing and 226 passing. Hall has started since his freshman season and has completed 165-of-232 passes for 2,645 yards, 34 touchdowns and just two interceptions this year. He also has rushed for 298 yards on 39 carries and four touchdowns.
The Maroons and Bluebirds have one common opponent in Class 6A regional finalist Scott County. The Cardinals handed the Maroons their only loss, 53-31 on Aug. 28 before beating Highlands, 54-28 a week later. Both games took place in Georgetown.
Hall has completed 752-of-1,162 passes in his career. The completions rank 4th in Kentucky history and the attempts rank seventh. Hall's 64.5 percent career completion percentage ranks 11th in state history and his 10,023 career yards ranks eighth all-time and his 111 touchdown passes rank seventh.
"The key is not just one individual even though they have a couple good individuals," said Shelby Jones, Highlands Defensive Coordinator. "They're a really good team. If you completely sell on one thing, then you're going to have to give up something somewhere else. We just have to continue to get better this week, trust what we're doing and play fast. That's going to be the biggest difference."
Johnson has 77 receptions for 1,344 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season to go with nine rushes for 80 yards and a touchdown. The Pulaski County coaching staff moves him around constantly. He might be in the slot on one play then go to the far left on the next play.
Johnson also broke into the starting line-up as a freshman. He has 248 career catches (third in Kentucky history) for 3,651 yards (sixth) and 45 touchdowns (eighth) making 3rd Team All-State last year.
Highlands senior defensive back Austin Beal said Johnson reminds the Bluebirds of last year's stand-out wide receiver Alex Veneman. Veneman had 95 catches for 1,595 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Veneman is currently at Western Kentucky University.
"He's the number one weapon on their offense," Beal said. "They like to get him the ball as much as they can. Veneman had the moves and the speed, which is exactly what this receiver does. Going against (Veneman) during practice the last two years, I'm ready to face (Johnson) and see what he brings to the table. We're going to watch film and see how we can adjust to his ball-playing."
But teams can't focus on Johnson. The Maroons have seen 20 different players rush the ball this year led by junior Jaylon Conwell's 103 carries for 777 yards and 12 touchdowns and 14 different players haul in passes. Senior George Gregory is second on the team with 491 yards rushing on 46 carries and five touchdowns.
The Bluebirds hope to keep playing nice defense. Highlands has allowed averages of 199 yards rushing and 142.8 passing this season.
"You have to do your job," Jones said. "If you do your job, you put yourself in good position. If you don't do your job, good teams can take advantage of it. You have to try to do it every single play no matter what. That's what we harp on continually. Good teams will get things here or there. But if you don't give up big plays, you'll help yourself."
The Highlands defensive backs know they'll have some one-on-one match-ups. But the Bluebirds have nine interceptions on the season. Junior Bradley Greene leads the Bluebirds with four picks and Beal has three with senior defensive back Taylor Perez and junior linebacker Trey Bowden recording one each.
The Bluebirds recovered three fumbles in the region final win over CovCath. Senior linebacker Jared Dougherty led the way with two and junior Sam Taylor had the other one. Taylor leads the Bluebirds with three with junior defensive lineman Drew Bravard, Bowden and Dougherty recovering two each.
Highland senior nose tackle Tyler Robinson continues to draw a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines with 11.5 tackles for a loss and four quarterback sacks. Teams double and even triple-team him opening things up for teammates to make plays. Senior linebacker Luke Lindeman has six tackles for a loss.
"It's a great opportunity and we're going to have fun while we go up there," Hall said. "But we're going to play our hardest, try to get the victory and just play football. We've played some big games this year. We played Scott County and (the Cardinals) play a similar defense. We have some play-makers who could slip past the defense a bit and make a few plays. But we're just going to play our game."
The Bluebird offense hopes to display the balance that its known for, especially if Pulaski County loads the box trying to take away the ferocious Highlands running attack. The Bluebirds have rushed for an average of 198.4 yards per game on the season and 1,006 in three playoff games for an astounding average of 335.3 per game.
A lot of the 284 rushing yards against CovCath came in the second half as the Highlands offensive line led by seniors Carson Haas, Evan Richardson and Bo Hebel wore down the Colonel defense.
Highlands senior running back Nick Kendall has gone for 582 yards on 55 carries and nine touchdowns in three playoff games for an average of 194 per contest. Kendall has rushed for 1,339 yards on 202 carries and 19 touchdowns this season and caught 24 passes for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
Pulaski County did allow 305 yards rushing to a physical North Laurel offense in the region title game led by 2,000-yard-plus senior running back Steven Nelson. Teams have rushed for an average of just more than 127 yards and passed for just more than 103.
The Jaguars held the ball for all but one minutes and 36 seconds in the first half including all 12 minutes of the second quarter. They recovered two onside kicks in that half.
The Bluebirds didn't have to pass much in the first two rounds. But the passing game built the lead against CovCath until the running game took over. Senior quarterback Austin Hergott completed 11-of-18 passes for 168 yards.
Senior Eric Miller led the Bluebirds with seven catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns in that win. Miller has 16 catches for 288 yards and three touchdowns this year good for third. Miller hauled in his first touchdown reception inches before two CovCath defenders arrived on the play.
"Whether it's too soon or too far, (inches) is what it comes down to," Weinrich said. "You just hope you've done the same thing over and over enough that you have the inches down, where you need to be to make the cut, where the ball needs to be, what kind of step to take if I'm going to make a block. That's why you practice that stuff all year and get better. That way it becomes second nature and you don't have to think about it."
Hergott has completed 125-of-232 passes for 1,520 yards, 14 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions this season. Senior TJ Sipple is second with 22 catches for 287 yards and a touchdown.
In games like this, the team that sees other players step forward and have big games often wins games. Junior Grant Murray and senior wide receiver Mitch Cain could be one of them. Murray has 504 yards rushing on 57 carries and six touchdowns and Cain has 13 catches for 138 yards and a touchdown.
"They do both (running and passing) so well," Hines said. "As a game plan, you have to take away one to help your defense defend the other one better. We're going to give it our best shot to try to take one of them away and make them one-dimensional."
Pulaski County has recorded three shutouts on the season and held three other teams to single-digits. Senior free safety Christian Holman leads the Maroons with 97 tackles and inside linebacker Jackson Mobley has 90.
"We're just going to go out there and play our game," Hergott said. "We adapt to whoever we play, but it's always the same motto. A lot of times when you see Nick (Kendall) break a long run is (opponents) are stacking the line and depending on everyone to make a stop. He's able to get by that so it's going to be different. We're going to hit them with a lot of different things. That's going to make them change what they do. You never know going into a game what's going to click for you. But there's always something there."
The Maroons have play-makers all over the field having recovered 25 fumbles and intercepting 11 passes. Junior strong safety Jacob New leads the Maroons with four interceptions to go with 88 tackles. Mobley leads Pulaski County with five fumble recoveries including a 20-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff against North Laurel.
"They play their defensive linemen in such a way that that's what their job is," Weinrich said of the Pulaski County defensive linemen occupying blocks. "It's a lot like CovCath's defensive line. They're looking to stuff you up front and keep you off their (linebackers) and let their backers run. Their defensive line does a great job being disruptive. It starts with them and after that, everyone else likes to clean up."
Special teams could be as crucial as anything in this game. Both teams have record-setting kickers. Pulaski County senior Derek Burgett has made 243 career point-after touchdowns good for third in Kentucky history and Highlands senior Jared Dougherty has 203 good for fifth in Kentucky history.
Burgett, a Union College commit, has made 83 consecutive PATs. That is three short of the record set by Boyle County's Will Harris in 2010.
Pulaski County will look forward to playing on artificial turf after what happened in the offseason following its state championship. The Pulaski County School District Board of Education members promised Pulaski County and cross-town arch-rival Southwestern turf last winter. But the board voted 3-2 against it in May leaving Hines and the Pulaski County faithful unhappy.
"Anytime we go to a stadium where it's turf, we play well," Hines said. "We're kind of built for that so hopefully, it's going to help. It's not an advantage because they play on it every game and practice on it. At least it's not a disadvantage."
Highlands owns 10 consecutive state semifinal wins. The Bluebirds have not lost in the state semifinals since a 45-6 defeat at Rockcastle County in the 3A state semis in 2002.